BY SUZANN STEWART COMMUNITY ADVISORY BOARD
TULSA, OK — “In America, we raise our criminals at home,” says Casey Gwinn, the co-founder of Alliance for HOPE International. At the Tulsa Family Safety Center, we see this every day.
In 2017, we served 7,600 women, men and children abused by people who grew up in homes with some mix of child abuse, domestic violence and/or drugs and alcohol. Children growing up in homes with violence and abuse live with a deep rage. It may not be apparent at 7 or 8 but it plays itself out at 16, 17, 25 and 30.
Sometimes the rage of childhood trauma produces a mass shooter like Devon Patrick Kelly in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Sometimes it produces a man like Bryon Shepard, who after strangling and abusing women for years, kills Oklahoma police officer Justin Terney in Tecumseh. Other times, it produces the rage-filled parent who beats his child to within an inch of her life.
Once the rage of child abuse grows up, there is little sympathy for the mass shooter, the rapist or the child abuser. But if we really want to address child abuse in America, we must focus on the children now growing up with child abuse and domestic violence. They are the next generation of victims and perpetrators.
More attention is being placed on the effects of trauma in children and adults with high indices of Adverse Child Experiences, or ACES. Based on a 10-question survey developed by Dr. Vincent Felitti in 1985 this assessment names three types of abuse — sexual, verbal and physical and five types of family dysfunction — a parent who’s mentally ill or alcoholic, a mother who’s a domestic violence victim, a family member who’s been incarcerated, a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment and emotional and physical neglect. Today it is commonly recognized that more adverse childhood experiences result in a magnitude higher risk of medical, mental and social problems as an adult.
We also know that crucial and intrinsic to any treatment at any stage of a survivor’s life is creating hope. Increasing hope in the lives of children impacted by trauma is the way to prevent the next generation of child abusers.
Family Safety Center’s Camp HOPE America — Oklahoma is doing just that with our partner communities across the country in the Camp HOPE America program with Alliance for HOPE International, supported by outcomes-based research performed by Dr. Chan Hellman and his team from the OU-Tulsa Hope Research Center. After three years in the program, we see our kids from violent families with statistically significant increases in hope and resilience. This research also shows increases in children’s hope impacts their self-control, gratitude and attitudes toward school. We have kids aging out of our program who will be returning as youth mentors to other kids who, like themselves, had been exposed to the worst violence anyone can imagine … and yet, they are hopeful and becoming confident there is another way to live.
Tulsa is blessed with a community willing to take on the enormous task of ending the cycle of generational violence and abuse present in the lives of many of our families. With Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in the predominance of high ACE scores in both children and adults, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Our legacy of philanthropic giving has continued to support and back up sadly ever-dwindling sources of state funds to help with this effort, which is not only a mental and physical health issue, but also one of public safety. Our Tulsa Family Safety Center agency partners, nonprofits and governmental agencies embedded onsite at 600 Civic Center, and our partners offsite understand these dynamics implicitly.
New programs such as the BEST initiative and the latest report of the Tulsa’s Mental Health Plan Strategy address both safe and healthy families and reaching children at the earliest ages. If not mitigated before adulthood, three out of four can remain victims or become abusers with multiple traumas and health issues.
As a fourth generation Tulsan, I am appalled at the dismal statistics we’ve seen for our physical and mental health well-being, from babies to seniors. I never imagined my hometown as a place where child abuse statistics lead our state, if not the country. But I have hope that a community that embraces its truth can also change its future.
We have the people and organizations, but we need to reallocate resources to the front end of the problem, not the end result of prison or homicide.
Be a force for change: Lift your voice to support those who are working to break a seemingly unbreakable cycle of violence that affects more than just the victims. It affects all of us. Seek help, refer to services, lobby for policy change and volunteer. You too can create pathways to HOPE for our most vulnerable citizens and safeguard a healthier future for our community.
Suzann Stewart is executive director of the Family Safety Center and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces from Community Advisory Board members appear in this space each week.